Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Moving Wall

The Moving Wall comes to Allerton this week, a mighty effort by what many would call a mighty small town --- population somewhere between 550 and 600. But size like many things is relative and when you look over southwest from Confidence or that window seat at the No Name Café along Highway 2 in Promise City, Allerton can seem pretty darned big.

Allerton also has picked up a reputation as the little town that can --- as opposed to other somewhat larger towns I could name where the first reaction to any new idea generally is we-couldn’t-possibly-do-that.

So it’s not surprising that The Wall is coming to Allerton, but it is remarkable, something to be proud of.


This is the 25th year for The Moving Wall, a half-size replica of that polished black granite wall in Washington, D.C., The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, that contains the names of more than 58,000 who died for me, and for you, in the order they were taken from us.

It was the idea of John Devitt, a San Jose, Calif., native and Army helicopter door gunner in Vietnam, who wished to share the experience of The Wall with those who would have no opportunity to travel to Washington to see it. It remains his life work.

Two of the replicas travel the country spring, summer and fall. This is the second and final appearance of The Moving Wall in Iowa this year.

The Wall will open to the public at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Round Barn Site, a collection of vintage buildings in open fields a mile east of Allerton. The opening ceremony will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, a presentation by Vietnam veterans is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Saturday and the closing ceremony will begin at 7 p.m. Sunday. The site will be open and accessible around the clock until 10 p.m. Sunday.


Wayne County, a small and intensely rural place, took a big hit during Vietnam --- Richard Cesar, Larry Gosch, Jerry Hickerson, Terry Leazer, John Lockwood, Dennis Levis, Roger McClatchey and Gary Moore. Albert Crouch, too, who called Seymour home although his family lived across the county line in Appanoose.

With the exception of Richard, buried at Rockford, Ill., and Roger, buried in Nebraska, I can walk you to all their graves if you’d like --- Larry and Gary in Evergreen at Lineville; Jerry at South Lawn in Seymour; Terry at Shriver, west of Seymour; Albert, at Livingston, southeast of Seymour.

But it’s Dennis Levis I’ve been thinking about, buried there at Allerton. Look northwest from the Round Barn Site and you can see the cemetery, about a mile away. What in the world would he make of all this?

Born in Chariton, Dennis was a young man with ties to several communities. He graduated from Seymour High School in 1964 while living with his family on a farm west of Promise City. When he died, his parents, Delrein and Gweniverre (Richard) Levis, were living in Chariton again as was his sister, Nancy. The Richards were Wayne County people, which explains why funeral services and burial took place in Allerton.

Dennis had attended Centerville Community College and in 1968 earned a degree in accounting from Drake University. He married Linda Bellomo in 1968 in Michigan.

Sgt. Dennis Levis, Co. B, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, was killed instantly during a mortar attack on the Kham Duc air strip near Da Nang on July 20, 1970. He was 23.

I’ve never met anyone not profoundly moved by a visit to The Wall in Washington, D.C., but it seems so far from home, so far from the places these young men returned to in thoughts and dreams while half a world away, places never seen again. I wonder if they might not feel more comfortable gathering round now, as this week ends and we come together to see their names and remember in a field that not only looks like home, but is.


In the week past, as the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon passed and as the death toll in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continued to move beyond 5,000, I reread Rick Maddy’s story. That story, eloquently told, is here. Scroll down, it’s entitled “February 28, 1968.”

My buddy Darlene and I have talked a lot about Rick since a week or so ago when he wandered into the Lucas County Genealogical Society library looking for information about his family. Although born in Knoxville and with deep roots here, he moved with his family to Washington state when he was two.

Darlene wowed Rick by opening her newspaper index and locating a story in the Chariton newspapers of 1968 about the critical wounds he suffered in Vietnam during that year, when he was 18.

Not afraid to ask tough questions, she asked if he would mind talking about his wounds and the ambush in which three comrades were killed, his arms were blown away and he sustained other critical injuries. And so he did.

It was only then that I really noticed what you’d call the “handicaps,” arms that barely work, surgically arranged as his wounds were treated at his specific request so that he would be able to drive, elbow missing, no triceps, some fingers working, others not. But this guy was a happy man and that made all the difference; it made you feel good to be around him.

Monday night, we talked with others who had met Rick during his visit --- Marilyn at the Lucas County Historical Society, Mary Ellen at the Russell Historical Society. Neither had even noticed the handicaps. There goes that happy man factor again.

None of us know Rick well enough to comprehend the ups and downs he’s gone though during the last 40 years, nor did we ask about the dark days that undoubtedly have been a factor in his life. What we saw was a triumph of human spirit, Rick’s gift to us.


I am not a believer. Vietnam was a disaster. Afghanistan and Iraq will be, too. Thousands have died and will continue to die for causes that in the end will prove to have been futile, or false. There will be another wall for the newly dead. War-related wounds will continue to become decisive factors in thousands of young lives. We will declare victory again and leave. We will lose again. The only winners, consistently and without a doubt, are the troops, but the cost is too high. It makes me so damn mad.

But if you asked me what in my life I’m proudest of, it would be the fact I’m a Vietnam veteran --- and that has nothing to do with anything I did during a short and undistinguished career involving work that was interesting at the time but ultimately futile.

It has everything to do with the 58,000 on the Wall, the untold thousands that dirty war has taken down since, and the Rick Maddys of the world who walked through hell and came out triumphant, combat veterans for the most part. It's something about walking for a time in their light, but I can’t explain it.

So I’m going down to see The Moving Wall in a day or two and touch a couple of names and think about this some more, some early morning I think when the sun is rising and there’s hope in the air. Maybe I’ll see you there.

1 comment:

Ed said...

Rick's story was incredible.

I remember the feeling when I saw the Wall in DC for the first time. That was why I jumped at the chance to help bring it to Richland back in July.